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Non-Review Review: Twin Peaks – Fire Walk With Me

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a fascinating piece of work, in no small way due to how it has been re-evaluated and reclaimed since its premiere.

Despite the urban legend, Fire Walk With Me was not booed on its premiere at Cannes. Nevertheless, the widely-reported rumour that it was says a lot about the film’s reception and the ensuing mythology around it. Young provocateur Quentin Tarantino even took the opportunity for a pot shot at David Lynch, lamenting that the director had disappeared so far up his own ass.” The film earned just over four million dollars at the United States box office. Those watching at the time would (fairly, in context) have deemed the film’s failure as the end of the line for Twin Peaks.

In darkness…

Of course, hindsight has reversed a lot of these opinions. Critics like Mark Kermode are willing to make impassioned arguments in support of Fire Walk With Me, and the tone of coverage of the film leading into the television revival two decades later was largely positive. Modern reviews tend to speak about Fire Walk With Me as a “harrowing tour de force”, and as a key part of both Lynch’s evolving filmography and in the development of what Twin Peaks could be. It is an impressive reversal of public opinion, in a relatively short amount of time. (Lynch’s in-between success with Mulholland Drive might have helped.)

It is possible to see both of those films wrestling within the finished product, to understand how the film could once be a provocative disappointment and an insightful statement. In some ways, this wrestling match within Fire Walk With Me feels entirely appropriate with the themes of both the film itself and the series leading into it. Lynch’s oeuvre is populated with doppelgangers and twisted reflections, and it feels strangely appropriate that Fire Walk With Me should exist as its own shadow self.

A singular maniac.

Watching Fire Walk With Me, it is easy to see why the film was so frustrating. Twin Peaks was always a strange creation, a quirky and eccentric oddity that somehow became a national phenomenon. Mark Frost and David Lynch had created Twin Peaks as something surreal and bizarre, but the show immediately connected with American audiences. The show was just strange enough to seem novel and compelling against the backdrop of early nineties television, but still conventional enough in structure that it remained accessible.

Audiences quickly latched on to Twin Peaks as the kind of shows that it so sorely resembled; a pulpy “whodunnit?” about the young high school girl who washes up on a river bank, a trashy soap opera about the kinds of eccentric characters who occupy small frontier towns. To most audiences, it seemed like the weirdness was a spice mixed into a familiar recipe, which often seemed to be the exact opposite of how Lynch and Frost approached the series. Watching Twin Peaks, it often felt like the recognisable trappings were a Trojan horse to indulge in abstract and surreal storytelling.

This is most obvious when it comes to the show’s central mystery: who murdered Laura Palmer? By all accounts, Lynch and Frost never planned to actually answer that question, instead using it to bring Dale Cooper to the town and to instigate a series of related plot threads. However, there was an expectation that Lynch and Frost would deliver on the mystery they had set up. When ratings began to sharply decline, the network instructed Lynch and Frost to reveal the identity of the killer, a decision that Lynch argues killed the show.

Naturally, as audiences realised that Twin Peaks was not what they assumed it to be, they drifted away from the show. The show was a massive pop cultural phenomenon, but it faded from view relatively quickly. Similarly, as they found themselves hemmed in by the demands of producing network television, Lynch and Frost also backed away from Twin Peaks. The slow and sorry decline of Twin Peaks over its second season is one of the great pop culture tragedies, a television show falling so gracelessly and so dramatically (and so quickly) from its peak into pop culture oblivion.

David Lynch cares not for your shade.

The show was cancelled, but not before Lynch returned for the final episode to blow it all up with one hell of a cliffhanger that inadvertently became a sequel hook to a television revival more than two decades in the making. To television audiences in the early nineties, Twin Peaks had showed up and promised one thing, only to never actually deliver. More than that, it slipped off the screen asking even bolder questions. What about the beloved Agent Dale Cooper? What about the existential battle between good and evil in the forest around the eponymous town?

Fire Walk With Me seems structured as an even bolder subversion of audience expectations, a film consciously designed to deny the perspective audiences the pleasures that they expect or demand from a Twin Peaks film. Ignoring comparisons based on quality, Fire Walk With Me feels like an even more aggressive expression of some of the ideas suggested by Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice or Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. This is a film that seems designed to deny long-term fans their expectations. This might explain the dramatic reaction to it, given comparable modern fandom revolts.

Fire Walk With Me seems built from the ground up to frustrate long-term fans of Twin Peaks. In basic premise, the film is an extended prequel to the original Twin Peaks television series. As such, it does not offer any resolution or closure to the dangling plot threads. Fire Walk With Me does not push the story forward, does not tidy up the cliffhanger ending to the original series. There are a few small nods to the ending of the series, including a time-dislocated vision of Annie warning Laura about Cooper’s situation without any larger context. However, Fire Walk With Me is not a continuation of Twin Peaks.

Instead, Fire Walk With Me serves as a lead-in to Twin Peaks, exploring the murder of Teresa Banks in Deer Meadow and then dwelling on the final few days of Laura Palmer. As a result, the film offers very few answers. Indeed, a lot of the film seems devoted to exploring information that the audience already knows about Laura Palmer; her addiction to cocaine, her time as a prostitute, her secret diary, her abuse at the hands of her father. For audience members who treated Twin Peaks as a puzzle to be solved, Fire Walk With Me seemed to be dwelling on a picture that had already been assembled.

A familiar dance.

However, even beyond the basic premise, Fire Walk With Me consciously subverted audience expectations. The opening credits include any number of recognisable names, associated with beloved characters. However, many of these characters only have small or token appearances despite their high-profile billing. Fans excited to see Mädchen Amick, Heather Graham, Peggy Lipton, and Catherine E. Coulson listed in the credits only get to spend a scene or two with them over the course of the entire film. (This is to say nothing of notable absences like Michael Ontkean, Richard Beymer, Everett McGill or Sherilyn Fenn.)

Of course, a lot of this material ended up on the cutting room floor, packaged and released as part of the “complete mystery” box set as effectively a companion film; Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces. There are a lot of really nice scenes in there featuring familiar faces, in particular a delightful short conversation with Pete Martell at the old mill that taps into nostalgic American anxieties about the loss of something intangible. However, even though this material existed, there is something telling in the fact that it was cut from the finished product while almost the entirety of the horrific “Pink Room” sequence remained intact.

Fire Walk With Me compounds this sense of fan frustration by choosing to spend its first thirty-five minutes with new characters in a new setting. (Although it should be noted that the character of Chet Desmond was originally supposed to be Dale Cooper, but the role had to be reworked when Kyle MacLachlan limited his commitment to the film.) To fans frustrated with the lack of screentime afforded to their favourite characters, this was time that could easily have been spent exploring the world of Twin Peaks and fleshing out familiar characters.

The thirty-five minute sequence in Deer Meadow is openly abrasive, in large part because the sequence is designed explicitly to contrast with Twin Peaks. Even within the film itself, there is a massive tonal shift once the narrative skips forward a year from the events in Deer Meadow to the events in Twin Peaks; suddenly the familiar theme music starts playing, suddenly characters start behaving like characters from the show, suddenly there is a real sense that this is part of the same world as Twin Peaks. All of that is missing from what amounts to an extended thirty-five minute prologue.

There quite possible is a finer diner.

This would seem to be the point of the exercise. Deer Meadow is just another in the set of doppelgangers and doubles that recur in Lynch’s work in general and Twin Peaks in particular; the clue is in the name. Deer Meadow is the evil ersatz doppelganger of Twin Peaks, right down to the diner. It even features its own ersatz Dale Cooper and Albert Rosenfield with Chet Desmond and Sam Stanley. Desmond’s disappearance mirrors, or bookends, Cooper’s disappearance at the end of Twin Peaks; even the initials of Dale Cooper and Chet Desmond can be transposed. Dale likened Sam to Albert in the pilot.

The grim surroundings and jerkish inhabitants of Deer Meadow signal the larger mood of Fire Walk With Me, as if warning the audience that Fire Walk With Me will not be “comfort food” for Twin Peaks fans. Even when the movie segues back to familiar settings and surroundings, even when the visual and aural sensibilities creep back in around the edges, that sense of “meanness” remains. The world of Fire Walk With Me is colder and harsher than that of Twin Peaks, even with the appearance of a literal angel at the climax. Deer Meadow sets that tone.

There are other aspects of Fire Walk With Me that seem deliberately designed to aggravate fans of the television show, whether affectionately or seriously. Early on in the film, Chet and Sam find themselves confronted by a strange dancing lady in the middle of the briefing by Gordon Cole. Sam is confused by this weird touch, which seems like something from… well, a David Lynch film. “That was really something,” Sam muses. “That dancing girl.” He pauses, taking a moment, “What did it mean?”

Chet subsequently explains the incredibly precise and detailed coded message of the dance, picking apart everything from facial expression to hand movements to peculiarity of language in the introduction. It is a sequence that seems to exist to gently mock those detail-oriented viewers who would try to pick apart Twin Peaks and to force its abstract imagery into something resembling an objective argument. Indeed, the interpretative dance seems like an allusion to one of the most iconic moments in the history of Twin Peaks, the extended sequence in the pilot where Audrey Horne dances for Cooper.

Blood on the dance floor.

(This is another aspect of Fire Walk With Me that has aged remarkably well. Internet fandom was still relatively young when Twin Peaks aired, even if it had one of the earliest online fan bases. As such, Chet and Sam trying (and subsequently managing) to construct entire paragraphs of background information and hidden meaning from a weird dance on airport tarmacadam seems to prefigure the modern era in which explainers and primers pick apart trailers frame-by-frame in search of coded messages.)

However, this abrasive and subversive quality is also why Fire Walk With Me works as well as it does. The opening sequence of Fire Walk With Me is a statement of intent. Mirroring a sequence involving Leo and Shelley from the first season finale, the opening credits play over static on a television screen. As the camera slowly pulls back, the television set itself comes into view. The movie then abruptly smashes the television screen with a sledgehammer. The statement seems clear: Twin Peaks has broken free from the confines of television.

This is followed by the image of Teresa Banks’ body floating down the river, in a manner that consciously evokes the discovery of Laura Palmer’s body at the start of Twin Peaks. However, Fire Walk With Me then introduces its first returning character from Twin Peaks: it is not Cooper, it is not Laura, it is not Harry. Instead, Fire Walk With Me understands that the most important returning influence is David Lynch, who drifted away from Twin Peaks in its second season, barring the occasional guest appearance and his role in the finale. That introductory shot of Gordon Cole affirms that David Lynch is back.

Indeed, despite its prequel setting, Fire Walk With Me seems to gesture as much to the future as to the past, albeit a future that few people could have imagined when the feature film was released. Fire Walk With Me is arguably much more aligned with Lynch’s aesthetic than the original series, which was something of a compromise with the formal constraints and expectations of nineties network television. As such, Fire Walk With Me feels very much “of a piece” with the revival that would follow years later, in terms of style and storytelling.

Let’s dance.

After all, Fire Walk With Me serves to set up a lot of ideas that would come to the fore in the revival. Phillip Jeffries would become an important character in the revival, despite the passing of David Bowie. His allusion to the secret meetings “above a convenience store” suggest imagery to which the revival would return. Jürgen Prochnow’s tiny cameo appearance as a woodsman at such a secret meeting establishes an important visual motif in the revival. More than that, the idea of returning to the start of the whole saga as a sort of bookend plays out in both Fire Walk With Me and the finale of the revival.

Even seemingly minor thematic touches within Fire Walk With Me are developed further in the revival television series. The early sequences in Deer Meadows fixate upon the power lines running into the park, with Chet drawn towards them. There is a suggestion that such cables form a network across the vast American frontier, the equivalent of ley lines for an industrial and post-atomic society. This idea becomes a recurring fascination with the revival, with electricity serving as something of a bridge between the two worlds.

Of course, there is an argument to be made that this is simply a result of Lynch enjoying more creative freedom on Fire Walk With Me, the film offering a more faithful expression of his artistic vision for Twin Peaks than was possible on ABC at the time. As a result, it makes sense that the revival would have a similar tone and vibe. The revival existed without most of the restrictions that Lynch faced on the original show, with a network that supported his unique creative vision. Fire Walk With Me seems to suggest the future of Twin Peaks on television, only delayed to a point when television could support such a bold vision.

(In fact, television becomes something of a recurring motif in Fire Walk With Me. When the film transitions to meetings of the ethereal entities influencing events, it transitions via television static, as if searching for the right channel. Indeed, the first of these interruptions comes at a point when Phillip Jeffries bursts on into the film; Jeffries introduced through the closed circuit television in the building. “It was a dream,” Phillip tries to warn his fellow agents. “We live inside a dream.” Phillip seems to almost grasp the nature of his existence as a fictional character. Being played by David Bowie might help.)

Yes, let’s.

Fire Walk With Me makes a point to stress how Twin Peaks has escaped the confines of network television. Bobby might still be a fifties greaser who bounces to the rhythms of Angelo Badalamenti’s score, but he now relishes the opportunity to curse. Laura’s suffering is no longer abstract and relayed through clipped exposition filtered through broadcast standards and practices; Fire Walk With Me can show Laura taking drugs, abusing her body, subjecting herself to cycles of physical abuse. The sexual violence in Twin Peaks is no longer at a remove, no longer coded, no longer implied. It is laid out for the audience to see.

Indeed, Fire Walk With Me is unflinching in its portrayal of depravity and brutality. Indeed, this may explain why the film provoked such a strong reaction. There is an argument to be made that Fire Walk With Me provides the audience with relatively little new information about the death of Laura Palmer, but that misses the point. Twin Peaks presented Laura’s suffering as a catalogue of trauma delivered by characters like Dale Cooper and Albert Rosenfield, but Laura always existed at a remove. Fire Walk With Me makes Laura tangible, and makes her suffering real rather than abstract. It is hard to watch, as it should be.

There is something provocative in all of this. The prequel setting was frustrating to some audience members, particularly the focus on a character who was dead before the first episode even aired and whose death had been solved less than half way through the second season. However, that is the point. Pop culture is full of stories of violence and brutality against women, both in films and television. These women are rarely anything more than plot devices, their murders puzzles to be worked through.

In the wake of the success of Silence of the Lambs, there was a cottage industry of television procedurals that kill scores of fictional women to spur weekly plots; CSI, Criminal Minds, Profiler. To be fair to Lynch and Frost, Twin Peaks was never cavalier about the death of Laura Palmer, but it had enough superficial similarities that it might easily be mistaken for that kind of story from a distance. Fire Walk With Me seems to exist as a repudiation of those similarities, to give Laura Palmer the spotlight and to turn her into more than just the abstract concept of a “poor dead girl.”

Mirroring Josie’s introduction from the pilot, which was juxtaposed with the discovery of Laura’s body.

If nothing else, Fire Walk With Me is a fantastic showcase for actor Sheryl Lee, who had been introduced in the first episode of Twin Peaks playing what amounted to a cadaver. Lee was always a talented performer, as attested by her elevation from lifeless corpse in the first episode of Twin Peaks to the narrative core of Fire Walk With Me. Her brief appearance in some video footage in the pilot convinced Lynch to bring her back as Laura’s identical cousin Maddy. Her work in that role seems to have convinced Lynch that she could anchor a two-hour-and-fifteen minute feature film.

Fire Walk With Me brings Laura Palmer to life. It develops Laura from a symbolic representation of the show’s core themes and a plot motivator into a fully-formed character. The version of Laura who appears in Fire Walk With Me is complex and multifaceted. She is a mess of contradictions, but also undeniably recognisable. She is a characvter who has been wounded and scarred by the world, but who still seems to have some light left within her. As cynical and jaded as she seems, as casually as she uses sex to manipulate those around her, Laura also seems to burn with genuine compassion for people.

This is most apparent in her complicated relationship with Donna Hayward, with Moira Kelly stepping in for Laura Flynn Boyle as Laura’s best friend. Donna is earnest and sincere, embodying the kind of purity with which Laura presents herself. Over the course of Fire Walk With Me, there is a compelling push and pull between Laura and Donna. Laura seems to almost pity her best friend’s sheltered perspective, frustrated by the cookie-cutter goodness of it all, and maybe envious of the protections that she has enjoyed. However, Laura also sees that innocence as something to be protected.

Fire Walk With Me is unflinching in the horrors to which Laura is subjected, which contributes to the film’s abrasive aesthetic. There was always a dichotomy within Twin Peaks, a divide between the wholesome Americana and the depravity beneath it. Even accepting that there was always something rotten at the heart of the community, the aesthetic of Twin Peaks was always a nostalgic invocation of an idealised American past; untamed wilderness, roadside diners, grand hotels, quirky characters. The darkness in Twin Peaks was always hidden beneath a sugary aesthetic.

Father knows best.

Fire Walk With Me gazes right into the darkness, plunging headlong into an abyss at which the series only really hinted. To pick an obvious example, the brothel at One Eyed Jacks in Twin Peaks was always creepy and uncanny, but it was also sterile and abstract because it was being broadcast on American prime time television. In contrast, the Pink Room in Fire Walk With Me is much more visceral and unsettling; as grotesque and horrific as any of the abstract and metaphorical spaces that exist within the Twin Peaks mythology. It is an extended nightmare, but one that happens to unfold in the real world.

This is another manner in which Fire Walk With Me distinguishes itself from the television series that inspired it. There are undoubtedly magical forces at work within Fire Walk With Me, entities that travel between dimensions and manipulate the lives of the area’s local inhabitants. However, they seems to exist at more of a remove within Fire Walk With Me than they do in Twin Peaks. They seem more like exploitative observers than conscious instigators, playing a role similar to that of a chorus.

Fire Walk With Me builds upon the idea of “garmonbozia”, the creamed corn substitute that is helpfully translated as “pain and sorrow.” There is a sense that the mysterious residents of the white and black lodges feed upon human suffering, and that Laura has provided much nourishment for them. Perhaps this is another admonishment of the audience for stories like these. After all, the audience is deriving satisfaction from the suffering and trauma inflicted upon the character of Laura.

Fire Walk With Me reinforces the idea of these otherworldly observes as an audience through Lynch’s use of televisual imagery when transitioning into and out of the lodge. When these figures venture into the world of the film, they present Laura with a picture of a doorway that seems to serve as a gateway to their realm; it is arguably as much a television as a still image. (It is even suggested that Cooper might be watching the events of Fire Walk With Me from the perspective of the red room, an idea reinforced in the movie’s deleted scenes.)

Nose best.

However, the movie also grounds Laura’s trauma. Twin Peaks was often explicit about the existence of entities like the Man From Another Place or BOB or MIKE, suggesting that the human characters were often pawns caught up in some cosmic game. (This metaphor was awkwardly literalised by Windom Earle in the second half of the second season.) In keeping with the contrast between the town’s wholesome exterior and buried seedy roots, it often seemed like a lot of the evil in Twin Peaks could be blamed squarely on these external actors.

There was a comfort in this, as the show acknowledged. After exposing Leland as the murderer, and confronting the existence of BOB, Sheriff Harry Truman lamented, “I’ve seen some strange things but this is way off the map. I’m having a hard time believing.” Cooper responded, “Harry, is it easier to believe a man would rape and murder his own daughter? Any more comforting?” The answer to those questions is “no.” It is easier and more comforting to believe in evil as an external thing, a force that acts upon men, then it is to confront the reality of evil that flows from men.

This is perhaps the most brutal subversion of Fire Walk With Me, far beyond the superficial teases and conscious withholding. Twin Peaks presented Leland Palmer as a tragic figure, controlled by forces beyond himself. Fire Walk With Me reverses the dynamic somewhat. There are several points in the film where it almost seems like Laura has conjured these metaphysical entities out of thin air in order to protect herself from the movie’s central traumatic revelation, that Laura has created BOB in order to avoid dealing with the fact that her father has been abusing her for years.

This is the paradox at the heart of Fire Walk With Me, a film that is at once more surreal and more grounded than the show which inspired it. Fire Walk With Me is not beholden to the same conventions and limitations as Twin Peaks, demonstrated by all the uncomfortable and abstract creative choices that would never have been possible on early nineties television. However, Fire Walk With Me also strips away a lot of the surrounding distraction from Twin Peaks to boil the show down to the simplest statement of its core premise: a tale of violence and abuse, of innocence lost, of trauma endured and buried.

A waking nightmare.

The style and mechanisms of Fire Walk With Me are largely abstract, the film’s disjointed quality reinforced by an edit that trimmed an hour-and-a-half of scenes while still leaving two-hours-and-fifteen minutes of story. On a scene-to-scene basis, Fire Walk With Me is a challenging film, the viewer often wrestling with it to make sense. However, taken as a whole, the audience stepping back from the finished product, Fire Walk With Me is also elegant in its simplicity. It is the story of a young girl trapped in a cycle of abuse and violence, hurdling towards her tragic and inevitable demise.

In doing so, Fire Walk With Me serves to bring the dark heart of Twin Peaks into focus, the story largely told through allegory and metaphor on the small screen. Twin Peaks is the story of the violence that men do, particularly inflicted upon women who cannot fight back. Teresa Banks is a sex worker, and so her case never attracts the same attention as Laura’s, her disappearance met with a shrug rather than horror. Laura is victimised by her father, the man who is supposed to protect his family in stereotypical nostalgic depictions of the institution.

(Twin Peaks has never been especially subtle about this subtext. The pilot episode introduced Laura’s dead body wrapped in plastic, as if to treat her body as a commodity. The discovery of her dead body was juxtaposed with Josie Packard putting on her make-up in the morning, reflecting the way in which society has conditioned women to “package” themselves; indeed, Fire Walk With Me offers a similarly framed sequence of Laura grimly applying her own make-up in the mirror. However, Fire Walk With Me renders it a lot more explicit.)

Fire Walk With Me is a film that exists at extremes, dancing between what is and what the audience expected of it, between the careful attention that it pays to the continuity of the original series and its frustration of fans’ obvious desires for it, between Lynch’s surrealist impulses and the film’s very straightforward central arc. The result is a bold and provocative piece of work, a movie that could arguably work as both an ending and a beginning, but which instead finds itself positioned strangely in the middle between the original series and the revival.

Daddy’s little girl.

Fire Walk With Me is a striking accomplishment.

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